March 7, 2010, Updated September 14, 2012

A new study from Israel shows that it may be easier to learn a foreign language from someone who teaches it in the same accent as your own.



Photo courtesy of Flash90.
Students learning a language from a teacher whose accent is different from their own, face an additional struggle to understand what is being said.

Want to learn French but can’t find the perfect teacher who wears a beret, crunches baguettes and speaks authentic Parisian French with just the right roll to her Ls and Rs? Dying to learn a Latino language, but strapped to find a teacher straight off the plane from Barcelona?

Your worries are over, according to a new study from Israel that shows that the French and Spanish teachers who learned their second exotic language on a potato farm in Idaho will do just fine if you are an American-born English speaker.

What’s the best way to learn a second language? And how well do students learn when the accents of their teachers are different from theirs, or from those of native speakers of the language they are hoping to acquire? A University of Haifa study has found that understanding a second language is much easier when spoken in the accent of the listener.

If it’s true that a second language teacher with your own accent – be it English, Russian, Amharic, Inuit or Hebrew – is just as good, if not better than your authentic, poised Parisian when you want to learn French, then the new study calls into question the efficacy of learning a language, or any subject, in a classroom full of students of different nationalities.

The research co-authored by Prof. Zohar Eviatar from the Department of Psychology, has implications not just in second language acquisition, but for how well kids learn new subjects at school, or how well university students study at college when their language or accent differs from the language being used in the classroom, she says.

Personal and professional curiosity

Consider a Chinese student at MIT, who is learning physics from a Ukrainian professor with a thick Ukraine-Russian accent. According to Eviatar, the amount of concentration that particular student will have to summon to understand the English in a different accent will be considerably greater than if the student were a native English speaker, or a native Ukrainian familiar with the teacher’s accent. This means less concentration is focused on the subject at hand.

The academic research was published recently in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, by a group of professors who were all curious about the effect of accent on language acquisition. Eviatar and her co-researchers Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim, Dr. Mark Leikin, and Prof. Shimon Sapir, all from the University of Haifa, each had their own reasons for being intrigued by the issue.

Ibrahim is an Israeli Arab with an Arabic accent; Leikin hails from the former Soviet Union and speaks with a Russian accent, while Eviatar is a fluently bilingual Hebrew-English speaker from birth. The team was both personally and professionally curious to know more about the accent effect.

The University of Haifa, in particular, has a large percentage of students who did not learn Hebrew from birth. They come mainly from the Arab Israeli population, whose members usually start learning Hebrew in second grade and from the new immigrant population from Russia, most of whom learned Hebrew only in their tweens and teens.

Implications for the classroom

The sample size of students at the University of Haifa was adequate and similar enough in composition to test the accent hypothesis. Sixty participants were chosen, aged 18 to 26. Twenty were native Hebrew speakers; 20 were from the FSU; and 20 were Israeli Arabs who had started learning Hebrew at around seven years of age.

In the study, the researchers made recordings of Hebrew phrases where the last word was recorded with one of four different accents: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian or English. The students were then tested to see how long it took for them to recognize the Hebrew word in one of the four accents.

They found that the Hebrew speakers could decipher Hebrew words adequately regardless of the accent in which they were spoken, while the Russian and Arabic speakers needed more time to understand the Hebrew words presented in an accent foreign to their own.

The researchers feel that additional research is needed to determine just how much extra effort is involved in the attempt to process both an unfamiliar accent as well as new material.

“This research lays emphasis on the importance of continuing investigation into the cognitive perspectives of accent in order to gain a better understanding of how we learn languages other than our native tongue. In Israel and in other countries where the population is made up of many different language groups, this understanding holds great significance,” they write.

Not just language, also other subjects

While many foreign language programs pride themselves on teaching students a second language in its true and native accent, this new study suggests that English taught to Mexican students as a second language, for example, can be taught just as well by a Mexican teacher speaking English, as by a native American who’s been speaking English since birth.

“If you are an Arab, you would understand English better if taught by a native Arab English teacher,” Eviatar believes, adding, “This research isn’t even just about learning language but can be expanded to any topic like math or geography.

“If you have a Spanish accent and your teacher has a Chinese accent it will be much harder for you to concentrate on your studies,” Eviatar continues. “It’s best to learn from a teacher who teaches with a majority accent – the accent of the language being spoken, or an accent like your own. If not, it’s an added burden for the student. This holds true especially in countries like Canada where there are numerous international students.

“It’s about language perception. You’d just spend a lot more effort perceiving what the lecturer is saying,” Eviatar concludes.

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